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THE GIRL IN RED **

Written by Christina Henry. RRP £7.99 352 pp

Out June 5th from Titan Books

 

One look at Christina Henry's back catalogue is all you need to see that she has a thing for fairy tales. From her takes on such figures as Alice, Peter Pan and the Little Mermaid in her previous novels she has proven a skilled hand for hard-edged revisionist takes on such tales with a keen eye for characterisation. For her latest book, she takes a sideways look at Red Riding Hood, updating the story to include pandemics and the possible end of civilisation. This time, however, there is a distinct lack of wolves; instead, the threat comes from roving packs of starving strangers and trigger-happy militia men emboldened by a societal breakdown.

 

The heroine here is Cordelia, or as she prefers to be known; Red, due in part to her always visible red hoodie. This minimal colour scheme is where the similarities to the fairy tales own heroine end. Smith gifts the reader with an always exciting protagonist, disabled with a prosthetic leg and of a mixed race she has already had to deal with prejudice and pity her whole life. By the time a life-threatening disease has started to decimate civilisation, known only here as The Cough, Red has prepared herself and her family for a dangerous trek across the country to her grandmothers secluded house in the woods. The novel's structure flits back and forth from before the journey to the present day where we find Red on her own; weary and quick to action with her ever-present small axe.

 

The novels biggest strength is how expertly it gets across Red's perspective and inner voice. The dystopian setting may seem over-familiar, comparable at times to The Walking Dead, but through Red's eyes, it manages to gain a refreshing, urgent perspective. The reasons behind The Cough are deliberately avoided, our attention diverted to the possible threat of neighbours and the locals turning on one another as everyday luxuries disappear, and resources dwindle.

 

Smith proves such an expert hand with her character work that the lack of a real plot does not really come apparent until halfway through the book. While not coming across as repetitive, the page count is really filled up with Red walking through the woods, sometimes coming across different characters. The second half does provide a slight conspiracy angle that seems to suggest another volume set within this particular world may be forthcoming. This is a prospect that does hold some appeal; the mystery is enticing enough to leave the reader wanting more, and Henry proves herself effortlessly with the novels short and sharp action scenes providing a high level of tension and sudden and startling violence that generate excitement every time.

 

Dystopian novels with teenage protagonists are a dime a dozen at the moment, but The Girl In Red proves a more than worthwhile read. With the loose ends left hanging here a return visit to this particular society in breakdown will hopefully provide a chance for its compelling characters to find an equally compelling storyline to play out in.

 

Iain MacLeod

 

 

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